Upon arriving in Quanzhou, I was struck by how much the city has progressed since I last visited. The development the city has undergone during the past couple of years during China’s economic boom has been staggering. Modern infrastructure exists together with old buildings preserved since the Tang Dynasty, resulting in a juxtaposition between old and new.

Quanzhou may not be a famous tourist destination, but it holds a major significance in China’s history. A coastal city on the south eastern Fujian province, this city was one of the busiest ports in the world during the Song Dynasty; Quanzhou used to be an avenue for trade with Arabs and Tamil merchants among others. It is also an epicenter for emigration since many residents left the city and moved to the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, accounting for the majority of the Chinese communities throughout the region.

Licheng District

The city’s history of emigration plays a role in one of the distinctive architectural details in Quanzhou’s old buildings. The buildings along the Licheng District have curving ends on their roofs comparable to the tails of swallows. The tour guide explained that like the swallows, many of Quanzhou’s immigrants return to their hometown with their families, settling there again after being away for so long.

Lower class district

I also visited another historic district in the city where lower class communities still reside. The buildings were not restored and were quite dilapidated, but since they were made of bricks, stone, and tiles, their structures still remained intact. Despite the few remaining residents in the neighborhood, some buildings are now deserted and are used as shrines for the ancestors of various clans. The deteriorating buildings around the neighborhood were a stark contrast to the new high-rise apartments around the vicinity for the growing middle class population of China.

An Ancestral Shrine

Various cultural influences are also noticeable in Quanzhou’s architecture. Because of its history as a port city, many immigrants also settled there and brought their cultures and religions. The Buddhist Kaiyuan Temple has Hindu-Tamil influences that is evident in the stone engravings of Vishnu and his avatars throughout the temple complex. Built in 685  during the Tang Dynasty, the temple was initially a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva but was then converted to a Buddhist temple in 692. The twin pagodas were added in 916, first with wood, then with brick and stone after the original pagodas burned down. A few kilometers away from the temple is a lingam erected in the Bamboo Stone Park (however most passers-by simply see it as a cylindrical stone). The Qingjing Mosque is also located in the city and is the oldest in China, constructed in 1009 by Arab immigrants. Unfortunately I did not get to see the mosque due to lack of time.

The façade of the Kaiyuan Temple
Vishnu as Krishna (top) and Narasimha (middle)
Dilapidated engravings of Narasimha

Once a humble coastal town, Quanzhou has now transformed into a big city complete with large buildings, a mall, asphalt roads, and clean sidewalks. I stayed in Wanda Vista hotel, one of the newer ones in the city, connected to the Wanda Mall with a shopping street and a boardwalk along the riverside. Looking at the view of the city from my room, I could see the city’s skyline occupied by clusters of high-rise buildings. There isn’t any modern architectural highlight of the city, but I believe that Quanzhou’s rapid development is already an amazing feat in itself. It’s not surprising for major cities like Beijing and Shanghai to be developed and modern, but for a provincial city like Quanzhou to be as urban as a capital city like Manila is incredible.

Last year, I took part in a pilgrimage to Mount Putuo, one of China’s five major Buddhist religious mountains. Hauled along by an energetic tour guide who explained everything in either Mandarin or Fukien (ergo I didn’t really understand much), we snaked around the busy streets of Shanghai and paid our respects to a multitude of ancient Chinese temples in the nearby provinces.

Now when you think of the word “pilgrimage,” you think of a quiet, spiritual experience through a billowing cloud of incense smoke, of monks draped in bright orange robes, and of fellow pilgrims offering a small prayer to the assembly of Buddhist gods before them. All of these things were there, but multiply the pilgrims exponentially. We literally had to make our way through a sea of humanity just to get to the different temples within Mount Putuo.

The weather was hot and humid as we navigated through the crowd, trying to avoid getting burnt by the hundreds of smoldering incense sticks that were being wielded around like weapons. Finally, after a tiring day of climbing up and down stairs (and after a lifetime’s worth of breathing in incense smoke) in Mount Putuo, we were finally whisked away to the secluded village of Wuzhen Water Town.

It was like being transported back in time. Lining the sides of the canals were small, traditional houses with their mossy roof tiles, weather-beaten walls, and ornate wooden windows. Constructed with a mix of rough concrete, exposed bricks, and dark wooden panels, the village gave off a feeling of an unpolished hidden gem, something that has remained untouched for centuries. It would really seem like you were back in ancient China if it weren’t for the occasional air conditioning system that popped out of some of the houses.

In the mornings, the sun cast a soft glow onto the picturesque village of Wuzhen. The mix of neutral grays, innocuous whites, and deep browns of the houses’ walls and rooftops were accented with bursts of green from the trees and shrubs that grew along the riverside. With the morning fog and its palette being so close to nature, the scene looked like something straight out of an ancient Chinese landscape painting.

As the sun set, however, the streets and houses were lit up, mantling the village in a mystical, almost eerie glow. Red and yellow paper lanterns lent their otherworldly light in dim alleyways. The morning’s calm and cool undertones of Wuzhen melted away into a tinge of warm amber. Ruby and gold-colored reflections danced along the dark waters of the canals, disturbed only by passing wooden boats.

It’s amazing how a difference in lighting can change a place so dramatically! Wuzhen Water Town was the perfect destination after such a tiring day at the temples. Its quiet, provincial atmosphere was peaceful, warm, and welcoming.

Though separated from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, the village pulsated with its own unique kind of energy—you just need to wait until the sun sets.